What is attack surface management (ASM)?

Attack Surface Management A Brief Guide

Attack Surface Management (ASM) is a proactive cybersecurity approach that continuously monitors and mitigates all security risks within an organization's cloud assets. Its ultimate goal is to minimize the physical attack surface, reducing the potential entry points attackers could use to breach your network perimeter.

In essence, ASM aims to secure everything on premises and outside your firewall that attackers could discover and exploit as they research vulnerable organizations. By proactively identifying, analyzing, and remediating these exposure areas, businesses can fortify their cyber defenses against data breaches, malware infections, and other threats targeting their cloud infrastructure and sensitive data stores.

Key takeaways

  • Attack Surface Management (ASM) identifies, classifies, prioritizes, and monitors all potential entry points for cyberattacks on an organization's digital assets.

  • Core Attack Surface Management functions are asset identification, risk classification, prioritization of vulnerabilities, and continuous monitoring.

  • Attack Surface Management implementation involves vulnerability analysis, evaluating providers, and establishing policies after deployment.

  • Vulnerability management identifies, analyzes, and resolves security risks across networks and devices.

  • Organizations can mitigate attack surface risks through Zero Trust policies, secure remote access, strong authentication, and protective backups.

What is an attack surface?

An organization's attack surface refers to the total sum of vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and potential entry points that threat actors could exploit to gain unauthorized access to systems or data. The larger the cyber attack surface, with more exposed areas, the higher the risk of a successful breach. Attack Surface Management focuses on identifying and reducing these exposure points. 

The entire attack surface is made up of several core components:

Known assets

These are the IT assets like devices, applications, and infrastructure that an organization's security teams are aware of and have intentionally provisioned on the network. Known assets undergo regular monitoring and security posture assessments.

Unknown assets

In contrast, unknown assets are unidentified devices, shadow IT systems, or unauthorized applications operating on the network without the security team's knowledge. These rogue elements significantly increase risk as they lack proper security controls.

Rogue assets

While also unauthorized, rogue assets refer specifically to known assets that have been hijacked or compromised to conduct malicious activities like deploying ransomware. Detecting these can be challenging.

Vendor connections

Beyond just internal assets, an organization's vendors and third-party integrations expand the external attack surface. Cloud providers, SaaS tools, contractors, and partners may introduce new vulnerabilities to monitor and secure.

Organizations can methodically reduce their overall cyber risk exposure over time by continuously discovering and evaluating all these components that make up the externally exposed digital attack surface.

Examples of Attack Surface Management

An organization's attack surface is made up of all the assets that are exposed to potential threats, including on-premises systems, cloud assets, internet-facing assets, and mobile devices. As an organization undergoes digital transformation, its attack surface grows and changes, introducing new attack vectors and cyber risks.

To better understand the concept of attack surfaces, let's look at some concrete examples of the latter and how malicious actors can exploit them:

  • Web applications: Web applications are a common attack vector, as they are often exposed to the public internet and can contain vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data

  • Cloud environments: Cloud environments introduce new cyber risks, such as misconfigured security settings, insecure APIs, and shared resources—attackers can exploit these vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive data or launch attacks on other cloud tenants

  • Third-party risks: Third-party vendors and partners can introduce new vulnerabilities to an organization's network; for example, a vendor's compromised system could provide attackers with a foothold in the organization's network

  • Remote access: Remote access solutions, such as VPNs and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), can be targeted by attackers to gain access to a company’s network

  • IoT devices: Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as security cameras and smart thermostats, can be vulnerable to attacks and provide attackers with a foothold in the organization's network

Why is Attack Surface Management important?

Attack surface management is crucial because it helps organizations gain visibility and control over an increasingly complex IT ecosystem with many potential entry points for attackers. The organization's attack surface expands rapidly as businesses adopt cloud services and remote work solutions and integrate with more third parties.

Unpatched vulnerabilities in any of these exposed areas can lead to crippling data breaches. Comprehensive attack surface monitoring and mitigation allow teams to stay ahead of threats by continuously identifying and resolving security weaknesses and gaps before they are exploited.

Components of Attack Surface Management

Given the broad exposure area we have just covered, Attack Surface Management requires a strategic, continuous process to identify and mitigate risks properly. 

The core components of an effective attack surface management program consist of:

  • Identification. One of the foundational steps is conducting thorough discovery to identify malicious or rogue assets across the internal network and cloud infrastructures. Since each asset could harbor specific vulnerabilities, comprehensive visibility is needed to inform mitigation plans.

  • Classification. Not all vulnerabilities pose equal risk, so the identified issues must be triaged and classified based on severity and potential impact on the organization's network. This allows for prioritizing the most critical exposure areas.

  • Prioritization. With vulnerabilities classified, security teams can then strategically prioritize remediation based on risk levels. This prioritization guides the implementation roadmap for deploying mitigations systematically.

  • Monitoring. Attack surfaces are dynamic, so monitoring must be a perpetual process to quickly reveal new vulnerabilities as they emerge across the digital estate. Rapid discovery allows rapid response before exposures are exploited.

How to implement Attack Surface Management

Even a small enterprise can have an immense attack surface. Hackers can leverage every internet-facing asset to gain entry into the internal network. Many Attack Surface Management vendors promise that theirs is a one-click solution, but its implementation is a multi-step process.

1. Analyzing network vulnerabilities through asset mapping

The totality of all connected organization's digital assets forms the attack surface. To be secure against cyberattacks means to be secure against every asset's vulnerability. Having digital assets mapped out helps evaluate which vulnerabilities pose the most significant risks. Cataloging all internet-connected assets helps make the first asset management strategy step.

2. Evaluating Attack Surface Management providers

Different vendors emphasize different expertise, which may or may not align with your identified security gaps. Therefore, properly evaluate what is on offer and look past flashy marketing slogans. Key features that will matter eventually are automated discovery, continuous monitoring, actionable alerts, and integration mechanisms.

3. Implementing policies & training post-deployment

Attack Surface Management implementation shouldn't end with its deployment. After everything is set up and running, employees should be familiarized with new systems that have been incorporated into their workflows. HR and business managers should be incentivized to use the opportunity to expand the training with cybersecurity awareness to make the most use of employees' attention.

How do you assess vulnerabilities?

Vulnerability assessment creates an overview of security risks within a network, founding a basis for their resolution. Identifying various security risks from each device or piece of software used allows network administrators to evaluate the threat landscape and what risks it entails.

The process itself consists of four parts:

  • Planning an assessment: This will involve cataloging used assets as well as investigating data storage locations

  • Setting it up: Various scanners must use the network to identify outdated software and vulnerable hardware

  • Resolving vulnerabilities: After resolving prioritized vulnerabilities, a security team must thoroughly patch systems where possible and potentially isolate legacy assets in sandboxed networks to contain risks

  • Performing ongoing maintenance: Once the vulnerabilities have been addressed, it's necessary to repeat the process periodically, as vulnerabilities are discovered constantly

Finding vulnerabilities and patching them up before an attacker does it helps to maintain the organization's security. Ongoing cybersecurity vulnerability assessment can dramatically decrease risks.

How can your organization mitigate surface attack risks?

A common practice when dealing with attack surface risks involves its reduction. These four steps could give you a framework for how to begin reducing your organization's attack surface.

1. Implement a Zero-Trust policy. You should deny access to your network to everyone without authorization. Zero-Trust puts a company's security first instead of convenience, which can substantially affect your company's security status.

2. Create safe gateways. Remote work policies are a new post-covid workplace necessity. Remote access should be allowed only via secure channels from a security standpoint.

3. Reinforce authentication. Your bleeding-edge cybersecurity tech is ineffective if the only thing stopping an attacker is a "123456" password. Authentication should be strict and leave little room for credentials exposure in an unrelated data breach.

4. Protect your backups. Unprotected backups can be how a hacker could obtain a company's data without directly staging an attack. An alarming number of data breaches were caused by leaving data backups unprotected.

It's also good to look into several integrated solutions incorporating multiple cybersecurity systems to facilitate attack surface management.

Attack Surface Management FAQ

Are there any attack surface management tools?

Yes, there are several commercial attack surface management solutions and platforms available from cybersecurity vendors. These tools are designed to help organizations automatically discover, monitor, and assess their entire external attack surface across internet-facing known and unknown assets.

These solutions use techniques like network scanning, code analysis, data mining, and threat intelligence to continuously map an organization's internet exposure across web apps, domains, IPs, code repositories, and more. They can detect unknown/rogue assets, monitor for misconfigured systems, and prioritize remediation based on risk.

How can an organization protect itself from the cyber-attacks?

Attack surface management can help organizations minimize risk and protect against possible attack vectors by providing continuous visibility and monitoring of internal and external assets in the organization's network. By identifying and prioritizing the remediation of known vulnerabilities and security gaps, organizations can minimize their attack surface visibility and protect against potential threats.

Security teams and threat intelligence can also provide an attack surface management solution to help security leaders decide where to focus their resources. Continuous discovery and penetration testing can also help identify new attack vectors and ensure that the organization's exposure management strategy is current.

What is an external attack surface management?

The external attack surface refers specifically to the components exposed to the public internet—websites, servers, cloud infrastructure, and resources reachable from outside the corporate network. This is the area most vulnerable to attack by external cyber threat actors. Robust external attack surface management and security operations are critical for preventing breaches, data exposure, and system compromises originating from internet-based attacks.

How can NordLayer help?

NordLayer provides a Security Service Edge, or SSE-focused network management solution, to address dynamic organizations' needs. It offers a complete overview of the company's network, allowing its segmentation into separate teams and gateways and minimizing an attack surface.

With NordLayer, you can deny connections from jailbroken devices to protect your network from potential risks. This can be incredibly beneficial for businesses bringing their device policies, which usually have a large attack surface. It's a great starting point to control your internal network better and minimize business exposure to online threats.

Contact our team and discover more about our approach that could improve your organization's cybersecurity status.

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